The need for systemic change in the international civil society system to bring more power and resources to local civil society is shared with all northern-originated INGOs, as conversations and explorations within Re-Imagining NGOs (RINGO) have highlighted. As a sector, INGOs are facing multiple and strong headwinds. There are the calls for decolonisation, to #ShiftThePower, to deliver on localisation. A simple market analysis reveals a sector under pressure, or even in decline. This is the decade to transform, die well or die badly.

HelpAge International, an INGO which focuses on the rights, voice and wellbeing of older people, has rooted its own transformation in the recognition that in a rapidly changing and ageing world, and in a changing sector (well – a sector that loves talking about how it is changing), what we offer must evolve. The vision, mission and values remain unchanged, but how we bring value, when working with others, needs to evolve.

By 2050, the number of people over the age of 65 is expected to grow from 9.4 to 16.5 percent of the world’s population. Alongside other mega struggles, ageing will have profound impacts on societies, human systems, intergenerational relationships, and the social contract between the individual, family, community, and the state.

Amidst these sector-wide shared challenges, a new strategic opportunity is opening for HelpAge with the acceleration of population ageing across the world. That, we estimate, makes transformation a more attractive and aspirational proposition, compared to playing only a defensive game involving the financial implications of shifting power. 

In 2021, HelpAge made three transformative shifts: 

  1. To use our global platform to support others in civil society: as Convenor and Thought leader; 
  2. To embrace partner-led programming; and 
  3. To transition all of our country programmes and offices to locally-led entities. They are first moves on the chess board, as transformation is a multi-year journey.

Lift up Thought leadership and Convening

Like most INGOs, supporting older people and their communities is the traditional and core role of HelpAge International. Its transformation aspiration is to elevate our Convenor and Thought leadership roles and shift to supporting local change makers in communication and national actions. The acceleration of an ageing population requires massive new practices, policies, social norms, and behaviours. We need to confront ageism, one of the last socially acceptable ‘-isms’ and innovate new ways of supporting older people and the communities around them. Convening others who are already innovating locally is what is needed.  

It sounds simple, but this requires changes in obvious places in terms of strategies, skills, project, partnership, and our current operating model. At a deeper level, it also requires shifts in individual mindsets and organisational culture. Through this, issues related to mental models surface, for example in relation to local capabilities, risks and risk sharing, motivations and preferences of change makers, sources of knowledge, blueprints for good design, etc. When we pause and openly reflect on our viewpoints, we may discover that they perpetuate coloniality in relation to local capabilities, sources of knowledge, motivations and preferences of local change makers, good design, etc. They are deeply ingrained and hardwired, and therefore tough to change, even if the case for it is understood and widely supported. Leaning into the discomfort is nevertheless important. 

These changes touch on our identities, which carry great significance in the INGO sector. The connection with “people” who are “in the field” is often the most rewarding aspect of the work. Localisation and #ShiftingThePower alter that in significant ways. There is a need to hospice and grieve the loss of some of these meaningful connections and replace them with new expressions of solidarity and shared belonging.

Re-imagine how we collaborate with others 

This sounds like an easy proposition. Afterall, partnership is common parlance in the humanitarian and development sector. And yet, it is surprisingly difficult to pull off. The aid system has hardwired a certain way of partnering, which many have described as full of colonial attitudes

HelpAge is committed to a partner-led programming approach. Working with and through partners is not new: the overwhelming majority reached with HelpAge financial and technical support is because of the excellent work of partners and network members. Rather, the key shift is how we partner with those local change makers. 

To this end, HelpAge and partners have co-created a roadmap whereby HelpAge seeks to make progress in key areas:

  • shift control and resources to partners; 
  • better and more skill sharing and accompaniment; 
  • amplify voices of older people and partners.

The roadmap is the basis for organisational design work, but equally (if not more) important, needs to be embraced by every HelpAge employee. Culture change is at the heart of this work.

Localisation of country programmes and offices

In line with our commitment to locally-led development and partner-led programming, HelpAge is transitioning all its country programs and offices. 

In the past 18 months, countries have undergone a consultative process to determine their incarnation of a locally-led initiative. Through this process, we collectively agreed that country offices could either nationalise the international program; stand back and support partners from across the horizon; or establish a platform (or similar) on ageing; or create a training centre for the country/community. 

The approach HelpAge sought to develop was to be consultative and inclusive. On various occasions, we had to course-correct and adjust. It was a real learning journey. This was totally new and novel. We did not always get it right in the first place, but hopefully – over time – we got better. 

Holding the tension between a locally-led process and managing the responsibility to stress test emerging ideas to ensure they are viable is a tricky and difficult one. We have grappled with it throughout. #ShiftingThePower must be accompanied by letting go and placing the trust in the new leadership of the emerging entities and its nascent governance. 

A journey of exploration

Transformation is aspirational and ambitious, but also full of ambiguity. We are clear on the direction of travel, but the exact destination will emerge. The journey involves testing, learning and adapting. Inevitably, indeed necessarily, it entails also FAILure as in First-Attempt-In-Learning. That is both exhilarating and scary. Afterall, “a goal should excite you a lot, and scare you a bit!”

Photo by Vlad Sargu on Unsplash